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Penguins Six-Pack: Painful Pivotal Point; Puustinen Progressing?



Jonathan Quick Evgeni Malkin Michael Bunting

The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t have a hard time figuring out when their 7-4 loss to the New York Rangers Saturday at PPG Paints Arena got away from them.

Giving up two power-play goals in little more than a minute — and doing it late in the second period of a tied game — obviously makes an impression.

And so it was that, after competing with the Rangers on fairly even terms for much of the afternoon, the Penguins yielded man-advantage goals to Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad and never got closer than two goals again for the balance of the game.

“The game flipped in that two-goal swing on their power plays,” coach Mike Sullivan said.

The power-play goals New York got came a little more than six minutes after Lars Eller had ended the Penguins’ 0-for-15 drought with the extra man.

1. A Quick answer

Although Jonathan Quick’s personal stats might not seem particularly good — he allowed four goals on 38 shots — he played a vital role in New York’s victory.

The Penguins felt that they didn’t take advantage of enough of the scoring opportunities they generated — “We just didn’t capitalize on enough chances, like they did,” Eller said. “We had plenty of chances.” — but Quick bore much of the responsibility for that.

He snuffed a number of quality opportunities, including one with 2:20 left in regulation, when the Penguins had replaced Alex Nedeljkovic with an extra attacker and were trying to erase a two-goal deficit.

Michael Bunting had the puck alone in front of the crease and got off an uncontested backhander, but Quick was able to stop it and preserve the Rangers’ cushion.

Of course, nothing Quick does when facing the Pittsburgh Penguins should be surprising. His career record against them is 16-6-4, including a shutout earlier this season.

2. At a loss for words

The latter of New York’s power-play goals late in the second period — the one that became the game-winner — was scored while Kris Letang was serving an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he was assessed in the aftermath of Artemi Panarin’s man-advantage goal at 16:27.

Letang picked up that minor for, uh, expressing displeasure about the officiating.

Precisely what he said isn’t known, so it’s hard to say whether it merited a penalty. Regardless, both a teammate and Sullivan suggested the referee probably could have been a bit less sensitive, considering the circumstances at this stage of the season.

“I’d like to believe, especially at this time of year, that the officials understand that the players have a lot at stake,” Sullivan said. “These guys are invested. It’s an emotional game.”

That’s true, but the reality is that Letang is a veteran and a team leader who had a serious lapse in judgment and discipline at a critical time in the game. And possibly even in the season, if the Pittsburgh Penguins genuinely believe they can still challenge for a playoff spot.

Letang’s passion is a major reason he has been so successful in this league for so long, but his emotion has to be channeled properly. In this instance, at least, it was not.

3. Could be worse

The Penguins will close out their season series with the Rangers April 1 at Madison Square Garden.

And while the result can’t get any tougher than in the first two meetings — the Penguins have lost both of those in regulation — the game could be a lot more unpleasant for them.

That’s because New York didn’t have Jacob Trouba, who sat out his fifth game in a row because of an unspecified lower-body injury, or hulking winger Matt Rempe, who is serving a suspension, in the lineup Saturday.

Trouba, of course, has earned a reputation for delivering head-high hits — the one he laid on Crosby in Game 5 of an opening-round playoff series in 2022 turned that best-of-seven in the Rangers’ favor — and Rempe has quickly established himself as one of the league’s most eager and accomplished fighters.

Having to deal with either, let alone both, will add to the Penguins’ challenge when they travel to Manhattan.

4. The net result

Sullivan seemed to go for broke with his goaltending decisions for this weekend.

He opted to start Tristan Jarry against the Rangers, the better of the Penguins’ two opponents, presumably in the hope that Jarry could elevate his game enough that the Penguins could take a point or two from an opponent with superior personnel.

Because it’s standard procedure for the goalies to split the starts when the Pittsburgh Penguins play on consecutive days, that would have left Nedeljkovic to play against Detroit Sunday.

Things didn’t go entirely as planned, however; Jarry was pulled after allowing six goals on 23 shots.

Although he wasn’t at fault for most of those, he did give up a preventable rebound that led to the goal that put New York in front to stay. The last one Jarry allowed won’t be fodder for a Rangers highlights video, either.

And when a team is facing an opponent that is opportunistic and has better players, it needs its goaltender to come up with some big-time stops if it hopes to avoid a defeat. Jarry did not give the Penguins enough of those in this game.

5. Something to build on

Sidney Crosby’s goal-scoring drought has reached 11 games, and is one of the longest in his career.

That has, understandably, gotten most of the attention lately, but he’s not the only one who has been struggling to find the net.

Valtteri Puustinen’s goal at 7:23 of the third period, when he beat Quick from inside the left circle, was his first in 13 games and just his third in 36 appearances with the Penguins this season.

He played on the third line with Eller and Reilly Smith, but the Penguins need him to score often enough to justify using him on a second line. (Not that anyone on that unit has been piling up points of late, either.)

“We’ve been working with (Puustinen), trying to get him to shoot off the pass a little more, so goalies don’t have an opportunity to get set and square up to it,” Sullivan said. “He has the ability to score. Hopefully, a goal like that will give him a boost of confidence, some belief in himself and his own shooting capability.”

6. Holding pattern

Getting a look at some of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ prospects to begin gauging which, if any, might be NHL-ready could be one of the most interesting aspects of the final month of this season.

One of them, defenseman Jack St. Ivany, was a candidate to make his NHL debut Saturday, but his initial appearance has been delayed at least a day, because he was a healthy scratch for the Rangers game.

He participated in warmups, but it was evident that he wouldn’t be in the lineup, because he did not get the solo “rookie lap” players generally are given by their teammates before appearing in their first game at this level.